Nevada End to End
AN INTERPRETATIVE ROAD TRIP TO WENDOVER
For more than 20 years, members of the CLUI have been driving back and forth between Los Angeles and Wendover, a little city on the edge of the Bonneville salt flats, where since 1996 the CLUI has maintained public display and information facilities, and supported creative interpretive projects through regionally and thematically focused research partnerships. The most direct way to Wendover is 630 miles, and takes around 11 hours, with a quick stop for lunch. Though there are a few routes that get you there, all require traversing the length and/or width of Nevada.
From the Center’s Culver City office it’s just a couple of blocks down Venice Boulevard to hop on the interstate system, I-10 eastbound, which takes you through downtown LA and across the width of the city to Ontario. Then I-15 north over the Cajon Pass into the high desert, a transition marked by an old diner that burned down in 2016, but whose sign remains: the Summit Inn. One of a few now-gone landmarks marked along the way.
For this first part of the trip, imagine Los Angeles as a big wad of gum in your mouth. Reach in there and pull part of it out, and keep pulling, as far as you can. That part in your fingers is Las Vegas. The thin strand between them is Interstate 15 through the Mojave, a narrow strip of urbanity. The desperado highway—it even has its own radio station.
40 miles past Summit Inn is the outlet center at Lenwood, just before Barstow, with a large cluster of franchises before the retail desert begins, a hundred miles through the heart of the Mojave, alleviated only by Baker, where the Mad Greek overlooks the Tallest Thermometer and the Alien Fresh Jerky guy hopes to build his UFO Hotel.
At the next transitional lip of the land is the rare earth mine at Mountain Pass, a big pit and chewed up landscape on the north side of the Interstate. Rare earth elements are essential to many precision electronics, including cell phones, and Chinese companies dominate the industry, controlling 90% of the market. Mountain Pass is the only rare earth mine in the USA, and it seems to open and close following China’s manipulation of the market. After a big ramp-up and modernization program, Molycorp reopened the mine in 2012, then closed it in 2015, undercut by low rates for Chinese product. Unable to continue to pay off its modernization, Molycorp declared bankruptcy. The mine was bought at auction in July 2017 by a Chinese-led consortium, which may open the mine again in the future, depending on US regulatory decisions.
From the pass, the highway plunges into the Ivanpah Valley and crosses a big dry lake at its bottom. The scene is dominated now with the surreal sight of the Ivanpah Generating Station, the largest solar power tower-type energy plant in the country, with three large towers lit up to searing white hot on their tops by rings of thousands of sun-tracking mirrors. Next to that is the Primm Valley Golf Club, on the site of a former gas-fired power plant, erased years ago. Next to that, a new photovoltaic power plant, generating another 100 megawatts, when the sun shines.
On the other side of the interstate, out in the middle of Ivanpah Dry Lake, is a fenced-off oval, enclosing nearly a thousand acres of playa. For years this was the waste pond for the rare earth mine at Mountain Pass, draining to this lowest point via a pipeline from the mine several miles away. Toxins built up in the pond, including radiation from the uranium-heavy minerals at the mine, and ultimately drainage was stopped. The site was partially remediated, but remains off limits, a no-man’s land basin at the core of a bigger basin. This is the end of California.
Welcome to Nevada
The north end of Ivanpah Dry Lake crosses the state line with the interstate on top of it, at Primm, Nevada, where the only development on the California side of the line is the California state lotto store. When the lotto prize climbs into the hundreds of millions, as it seems to a few times a year, a strange reversal of normal gambling vectors occurs, with so many Nevadans lining up to buy lotto in California that a line extends across the state line back into Nevada.
Past Primm, with its Buffalo Bill rollercoaster and the Bonnie and Clyde Death Car at Whiskey Pete’s, and its echoes of Jean Baudrillard’s mumbled Semiotext(e) performance there at two in the morning in 1996, it’s another 12 miles of empty interstate to the next residence-less community at Jean, with its recreational airport used by gliders and skydivers, Gold Strike Casino, and a minimum security state prison camp. Here 240 women are doing time, occasionally dispatched to fight fires and clean up highway trash, across from a plastics and paper packaging plant, the only industrial business in Jean, a plant which possibly made some of the very trash they are dispatched to pick up from the highway.
Across the interstate is a big flat pad, behind a Terrible Herbst gas station, where Nevada Landing, a large casino shaped like a sternwheeler riverboat, once stood. It disappeared nearly overnight in March 2008, torn down by its owners, MGM, though there is hardly any reason now to remember it. Its large sign remained next to the highway, by itself, for more than a year after the desert ghost ship sailed off.
Interstate 15 continues north, past Ugo Rondinone’s Seven Magic Mountains sculpture. The sculpture is on a road that parallels the interstate, a road that is the nascent Las Vegas Boulevard, emerging out of the dirt next to the highway, becoming paved, on its way to becoming the axis along which the largest hotels in the world hang like gargantuan baubles on the string of the Strip.
The first signs of the city advancing is at Sloan, where one of the main sources of aggregate for the region is seen reducing a mountain north of the highway, and where a new Army Reserve Center has a yard full of well maintained new vehicles, ready to go. Next to the highway is a recreational speedway, where the public can drive a Lamborghini or a Ferrari as fast as they can, for $79 per lap. Then the highway, with Las Vegas Boulevard still riding shotgun on its right, curves left, to align with the Cartesian grid, due north, for its run through the first half of the Las Vegas Valley. Though some people disparage elevated freeways through urban areas, sometimes, such as in Las Vegas, they are just the right thing, and you wish there were more of them, flinging people around at great speed, soaring among the strange buildings, as if in a futuristic flying pod at an amusement park ride connecting amusement parks. So long as the freeways stay free, and provide a quick exit when the time comes to go.
North of North Las Vegas
Along the Interstate 15 corridor north of Las Vegas, the residential tapers off into an industrial and logistical zone, with the usual truckyards, junk yards, food distribution centers, and prisons. Also along here is the Department of Energy headquarters, and Nellis Air Force Base, with their engineering contractors and fuel depots, and another large National Guard readiness center.
Things changed a couple of decades ago at the northern end of the corridor, with the development of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and related specialty automotive companies—one of the largest contiguous expanses of asphalt in the west, more than a full square mile of parking, which continues across the interstate with an automotive auction lot more than a mile long with space for more than 10,000 cars.
The speedway (owned by a company based in Charlotte, North Carolina, NASCAR ground zero) is also the location for the Electric Daisy Carnival, the largest electronic dance music festival in the country, held annually in the early summer, with as many as 350,000 people raving over three days and nights, in a massive conflation of heaven and hell.
Further north up the interstate is the Ritchie Brothers equipment auction lot, marking the outer edge of the sprawl of many urban centers of the nation, after which one arrives at a remote and remarkable industrial development on the rim of the bowl of the Las Vegas valley—a place aptly named Apex.
Apex has a Georgia Pacific wallboard plant that plasters Las Vegas, next to a major limestone mine and plant operated by Lhoist, a Belgian mineral conglomerate. Across the highway is the main landfill for Las Vegas’ municipal waste, operated by Republic Services (the smaller of the two giant waste hauling and disposal companies operating throughout the USA). Republic Services has nearly 200 active landfills across the country, but the landfill at Apex, at more than 2,000 acres, is said to be the largest active landfill in the country.
Heading to Wendover, one turns off Interstate 15 at the Apex Exit, (in front of the entrance to the dump) and heads north on the two- lane blacktop Highway 93, into Apex—yet another large Nevada settlement without a single residential building. The highway passes through an electrical production center, with four separate gas fired power plants (the Harry Allen, Silverhawk, Apex, and Chuck Lenzie generating stations), spurred into production by the fake Enron energy crisis, and three industrial scale photovoltaic solar power plants, one of which covers more than two square-miles.
The grounds of a former Kerr McGee rocket fuel plant and propellant storage facility are being redeveloped into more industrial park space. A portion of the property was developed into the Blue Oasis shrimp farm, intended to supply some of the 20 million pounds of shrimp that are consumed in Las Vegas annually, 90% of which comes frozen from Asia. The operation closed in 2012 after a year. On the edge of the site is a major test and development area for a hyperloop project. Hyperloops, of course, are large diameter vacuum tubes, which propel pods inside them by air pressure, at very high rates of speed. Similar to the pneumatic tube system still found in some large retail operations, where capsules are used to move cash to and from cashiers, hyperloops upsize this technology to move people, as well as goods, inside the pods. While this sci-fi steampunky notion has been around for a while, it was revisited as a possibly viable technology a few years ago by Elon Musk, who proposed building a 350 mile-long hyperloop to connect northern and southern California, sending travelers through the tube at speeds exceeding 600 miles per hour. Though he built some test facilities at his SpaceX plant in Hawthorne, California, several other companies have emerged to commercially develop the technology, and are now in the early stages of projects in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
With two test areas and a 1,500-foot-long full-scale tube section, this site at Apex is currently likely the largest test site for a hyperloop system in the USA. It completed its first full-scale test run in May 2017. Richard Branson, whose Virgin brand operates an airline and is developing the commercial space flight center in New Mexico (and whose private Virgin Island was Obama’s first stop after the presidency), recently joined the team of investors, and the Apex project is now known as Virgin Hyperloop One, and is based out of Los Angeles.
Heading north on Highway 93 from Apex, one gets a sense that there is a lot of space yet to fill in Nevada. In 25 miles though, this impression is challenged with the huge sign and earthmoving projects at Coyote Springs.
In 1988, the BLM transferred around 40,000 acres of open land here to the Aerojet Corporation, in exchange for protecting 5,000 acres of land the company owned in the Florida Everglades. Aerojet originally intended to build a rocket manufacturing and testing site here, but instead it sold the land to developers to make a planned community. It was to be one of the largest master-planned developments in the nation, with 160,000 homes, schools, casinos, and retail, ultimately covering 65 square miles of virgin terrain, costing upwards of $30 billion to build. So far though, no houses have been built.
The golf course, designed by Jack Nicklaus, opened in 2006, but the rest of the development has been stalled due to financial problems, political corruption charges, and challenges from environmental groups. Water distribution and flood control structures continue to be installed, including a two-mile-long upslope flood control basin to protect the development from flash floods (which have occurred here in dramatic ways, even in the past ten years). The green and watered holes of the rambling golf course are surrounded by a network of terraced and leveled house sites, as if watering the course would somehow grow the houses too. It’s no doubt a strange empty place to play the game.
Ten miles further north through open land on Highway 93, the Great Basin Highway, another curious development comes into view on the west side of the road, the Western Elite Landfill, another major landfill for the Las Vegas region. While the big Republic pile at Apex takes household trash from the city, and is open to the public, Western Elite is, as its name implies, more exclusive, only taking industrial wastes from previously approved haulers. Though it is an hour away from the city, it is the primary landfill for Las Vegas’ construction debris. It also accepts tires, shredded vehicle residue, asbestos, and grease traps.
15 miles further up Highway 93, the highway enters the surprisingly wet Pahranagat Valley, a narrow wedge of green with lakes, trees, and agriculture, surrounded by the sagebrush ocean of Nevada. The green corridor extends for 30 miles through Alamo and Ash Springs, where hot spring pools lurk in the bushes next to the highway.
North of Ash Springs the two-lane highways of southeastern Nevada converge/diverge at Crystal Springs, where 93 heads east through Caliente before heading north again to Pioche, and 375 heads west, past the back door to Area 51, near the fabled black mailbox, and through the town of Rachel, where the Little A’Le’Inn bar and restaurant has been serving UFO tales and tourists for more than 25 years.
Going to Wendover, though, we’ll take Highway 318 north from Crystal Springs, continuing up the Pahranagat Valley, past alfalfa farms, whose central pivot irrigation make partial circles like pie charts, through Hiko, a town marked just with a post office. The next retail opportunity on this route is north of Lund, 100 miles up the road.
Ten miles north of Hiko is a turn-off onto Seaman Wash Road, a dirt road that leads to Garden Valley, 30 miles further, where the artist Michael Heizer has been building his City complex since 1972. The mile and a half long artwork is now part of the Basin and Range National Monument, a 704,000 acre wilderness area established by President Obama in 2015. Eventually City will be open to the public, but for now it remains off limits, behind a locked gate—the Area 51 of Land Art.
Highway 318 then enters the White River Narrows, where the road winds along the bottom of a steep canyon, walled in on either side, and covered in Native American rock art, if you know where to look. No water is to be seen, either, it’s a relic of river.
Coming out of the narrows, the landscape widens into the White River Valley, with just a few ranches and one roadside rest for 60 miles, until the speed limit drops precipitously to 25 miles per hour to pass through the small village of Lund, an old Mormon agricultural town of around 250 people, north of which is the first gas and retail since Ash Springs, more than 110 miles away.
It’s just a few miles further to the northern end of State Route 318, where the road ends at a T at Highway 6. Like many remote intersections in Nevada, this one has a few abandoned buildings that once served travelers on the road. This intersection had a small bar and restaurant, Halstead’s Blackjack Inn, now covered in curious graffiti.
Highway 6 is a road even more lonely then Nevada’s official Loneliest Road, Highway 50. West on Highway 6 is a 170 mile stretch between Tonopah and Ely without any retail opportunities at all, let alone a gas station, even though along the way you pass by Nevada’s only oil refinery, in the Railroad Valley, where, in a pinch, they have been known to help the occasional desperate traveler running out of fuel.
We, however, are heading east on Highway 6, to Ely, 20 miles away. The road climbs up the Egan Range, into pinyon pine forests peppered with old mines. Along the way the two-mile-wide empoundment dam for the tailings from the five-mile-wide mining operation at Ruth becomes visible. Ruth has been mined since 1868, when an early prospector named Thomas Robinson found gold. The mine, which still bears his name, evolved into a massive underground operation run by Kennecott Copper, which became an open pit around 1950. Ore was hauled by rail 13 miles away to the smelter at McGill. Kennecott idled the mine and closed the smelter in the early 1980s.
The mine was bought and reopened by BHP in the 1990s, though by then the railway and the smelter at McGill were gone. Copper from this mine is now processed to around 70% ore in an in-pit refinery, then is trucked on the highways by a continuous convoy of oversized dumptrucks running 24/7/365, 130 miles to Wendover, where it is placed on to rail cars and taken to Vancouver, Washington, then across the Pacific by ship to China, where it is further refined into copper to help wire up that country.
Little of this is immediately apparent in the town of Ely, a county seat and ranching center, where Highways 50, 93, and 6 intersect. Most of the jobs are at the mine, or at the state prison north of town. Ely was once a major rail town, too, though the tracks are pulled up or abandoned, except for a stretch by the old depot, where a steam ghost train is run by history buffs for the tourists interested in such things.
Back on Highway 93 now, it’s 12 miles north to McGill, the Kennecott mining company town, where a massive smelter operated for dozens of years, extracting copper, gold and silver from the pit across the valley at Ruth. The smelter, with its 750-foot smokestack, was torn down in the 1980s. Rows of small houses for workers remain, as well as a hillside managers row of larger houses, closer to the mill site. Several large-scale municipal buildings, schools, warehouses, labs, and other structures remain, all of which seem too big now for such a small town.
Though most of the land in the area is still owned by Kennecott, today there is only one Kennecott employee on site. His job is to maintain the irrigation system for the grass on top of the tailings mound. The mound is close to four miles long, and extends for two and a half miles west of town, nearly filling the valley from end to end. It is invisible to most passers-by, though, looking like some kind of natural landform, partially because of the continuous irrigation which keeps dust down and makes it look like agricultural land.
North of McGill, Highway 93 rides along the east side of the Steptoe Valley for 50 miles, a linear basin in the network of basin and range striations covering northern Nevada. At Schellbourne the highway crosses the route of the former Pony Express trail, marked by a wayside interpretive station and an abandoned motel.
The Pony Express looms large in the myths of manifest destiny, despite being in existence for just a year and a half, between 1859 and 1861. At the time, it was state of the art for getting information across the country—a note could be passed from east coast to west coast in as little as ten days. In a few years it would be outperformed by telegraphs and railways. The Pony Express was a 1,900-mile-long route across the western half of the continent, with hundreds of horses, and 184 stations spaced from 5 to 25 miles apart. Most served as relay stations where tired horses and riders could be swapped out for fresh ones, on their collective sprint across the plains and mountains. In this way, the Pony Express carried a total of 35,000 letters between its termini at St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California, over the course of its existence.
20 miles north from Schellbourne, Highway 93, the Great Basin Highway, veers left, and heads up towards Wells. Going straight, from here to Wendover, 60 miles away, the road is known as Alt. 93, and is a remnant of the old Lincoln Highway. The first views of the flats can be had after White Horse Pass in the Goshute Mountains, extending eastward into the bombing ranges of Utah—the end of one type of Basin and Range, and the beginning of another.
By now, on our trip from Los Angeles to Wendover, it’s usually dark, and suddenly, the lights of the casinos of Wendover appear, looking like an oil industry supply base in the Arctic has met the Playboy party scene in Apocalypse Now. Once again, we have arrived. Only to depart again, and go back, either by a different route, or the same, a kind of interpretive highway hyperloop through the middle of the nowhere near here now. ♦